Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer directed by John McNaughton
Loosely based on the real-life exploits of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to the slayings of over 600 people but who was ultimately convicted in the homicide of a “mere” 11, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer changes some of the established facts around, yet remains a very strong experience for the viewer. As revealed on a certain Wiki site, the film was shot in just four weeks in 1986, at a cost of around $110,000, but was not released until four years later. Despite its great reputation, it is a film that I had long put off watching, having a suspicion that it would be a rather unpleasant experience for me overall. But lately, I have been exposing myself to a bunch of previously dreaded films (such as Blood Sucking Freaks and 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, with Audition and Cannibal Holocaust soon to come), and find that Henry is actually quite excellent; unpleasant, of course, but nevertheless featuring a winning script and three dynamite performances that elevate it to the ranks of first-rate independent filmmaking.
In the picture, the viewer makes the acquaintance of Henry (Michael Rooker, in his first screen role), a polite, soft-spoken, illiterate young man who looks a tad like a less muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger crossed with Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner … and who also happens to be a quite casual serial killer. Before we even get to hear him speak, we see a trail of Henry’s victims on screen: a beautiful brunette lying in the grass with a gashed abdomen, a pair of liquor store owners with gunshot wounds to the head, a bloodied hooker with a glass bottle stuffed in her mouth (!), a dead woman lying face down in a stream. When we first meet Henry, he is doing work as an exterminator, appropriately enough, living in Chicago with an ex-jailmate named Otis (very loosely based on the real-life Ottis Toole, and played here by Tom Towles), a parolee who makes a living as an auto mechanic and pot dealer. Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) soon comes to stay, and learns that Henry had done his time in jail for the killing of his own mother. And it would seem that old habits do die hard, as Henry’s propensity toward homicide for kicks remains undiminished, and when the bored and frustrated Otis becomes a willing student in the art of casual killing, the pair enters into a series of slayings that achieve a whole new realm of fun and games…
Featuring expert direction from John McNaughton and those three finely crafted performances, Henry truly is a powerful experience. The film is often quite suspenseful, and much of that suspense derives from the viewer’s never knowing which of Henry’s encounters will turn lethal. Anyone who Henry sees, be it a waitress in a diner or a woman walking her dog, becomes a potential victim, and it is the lighthearted, blithe casualness with which Henry dispatches these victims that makes the picture so horrific. Operating under his philosophy of “It’s either you or them,” Henry is as dispassionate a killer as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, calmly eating a burger and fries, for example, after breaking the necks of two prostitutes. Several of the picture’s slayings are merely suggested (for example, that guitar-toting female hitchhiker who gets into Henry’s car; Henry later offers the guitar to Otis as a present) and some seen, as mentioned earlier, only as bloodied aftermath, but still, the film DOES give the viewer ample evidence of Henry and Otis in action. Thus, the repeated stabbing and head bashing of a TV-dealing fence; the oh-so casual murder of a driver in an underpass; the pair videotaping their rape/murder of an entire nuclear family (arguably, the most disturbing sequence in the film), and the final 15 minutes of the picture, which I won’t go into but do guarantee will long linger in the memory.
The film gives us an explanation for Henry’s psychosis that at first seems only barely plausible (his mother had been a hooker who had forced Henry to wear dresses and watch her have sex with the customers) … until one learns that such had been the case with Henry Lee Lucas himself in the 1940s. “My mama was a whore,” Henry tells Becky with a sneer on his face, and the moment is an icy one. All told, Henry may be unpleasant, detailing as it does the lives of three very damaged and disturbed people (Becky had been repeatedly raped by her father as a girl and beaten by her present husband), but remains a very fine film. Its violence is clinical but hardly exploitative, and in its understated way, leaves a residual chill that a less artfully composed picture could never achieve. It was followed by a sequel six years after its release, but with a different director at the helm and another actor portraying Henry, this follow-up is a product that this viewer is in no great rush to see.
Further good news regarding Henry is that the film is available to us today on a great-looking DVD from the always dependable Dark Sky outfit; Henry, originally shot in 16mm, may never look better for home viewing. It took me 24 years to catch up with this one, but I am so glad that I finally did. Pretty potent stuff, indeed!
I’m glad it’s well-made, but I’ll pass.
Oh, it’s NOT a movie to see with Aunt Petunia, that’s for sure!